Pat Ward and Les Powell - Derbyshire's animal trainers extraordinaire

PUBLISHED: 11:26 24 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:13 20 February 2013

Pat Ward and Les Powell - Derbyshire's animal trainers extraordinaire

Pat Ward and Les Powell - Derbyshire's animal trainers extraordinaire

Looking for an animal superstar? Elmton is the place to go. Mike smith meets Pat Ward and Les Powell.

Faced with scripts that required appearances by a donkey, a Shetland pony, a reindeer, a snake, a lizard, a goat, a guinea pig, a locust and several dogs, cats, rats, hamsters, caterpillars and budgerigars, the producer of Yorkshire Televisions series My Parents are Aliens knew exactly where to turn for help. Pat Ward, who runs Prop Farm Ltd with her husband Les Powell, would be able to supply every one of these creatures. She would also come along to the set in order to ensure that the directors demands could be met without any harm or distress being caused, not only to her animal actors, but also to the human thespians who would be working in trepidation alongside them.

My Parents are Aliens is just one of over 300 productions that have featured creatures supplied by Pat, who began loaning animals from her Yorkshire farm for use in films and television in the 1970s. At that time, Les was working as a production buyer at the BBC Pebble Mill studios and he first came across Pat when he needed horses and domestic animals for a television series based on Catherine Cooksons book Our John Willie. After working together again on Nanny, Les and Pat decided to team up, both professionally and romantically. They bought a rundown farmhouse and three acres of land in the village of Elmton, near Creswell, and gradually turned it into a beautiful home and a base for their business.

When I met the couple at their farmhouse, Les told me that he had acquired an extensive collection of rustic props over the years and that he had become a licensed armourer, which enables him to supply various weapons for use in productions. Pat has lived with animals and cared for them throughout her life and she still owns a large selection of creatures that she treats as members of the family. Thanks to her gregarious nature, she has also built up contacts with scores of people who are willing to provide animals to supplement those from her own farm when need be. Little wonder that the couple have become known in the film and television world as the Dynamic Duo.

At one point, Pat kept 13 dogs on the farm. Deciding that this was an unlucky number, she acquired a fourteenth dog, a scruffy-looking specimen who was smartened up and became an unlikely canine star. He played Dick Dog in Central TVs Hard Cases and went on to feature as a dog with a penchant for stealing handbags in the BBC series Making Out. Pat says: Dick Dog was absolutely star struck. He loved appearing in front of the cameras and he would strut around in the haughty manner of a superstar whenever he returned to the farm after a shoot.

Pat often invites the actors to visit the farm in order to meet the animals with whom they will be working. Trevor Eve came along to be introduced to the big black stallion that he would be required to ride in Parnell and the Englishwoman and his co-star Francesca Annis learnt to drive a pony and trap, with Pat slipping the reins to the actress without her noticing as they chatted during their drive around the local lanes. Michael Elphick came to ride the horse that would feature in Boon, Tara Fitzgerald learned to ride side-saddle for her part in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and a nervous Rod Hull asked Pat to give him a leg-up on a donkey scheduled to feature on Emus World.

Many of the actors who visit Elmton in preparation for their roles are honest about their lack of riding experience, but people auditioning as extras are often so keen to appear on film that they claim to have skills they dont possess. Extras who bring their own animals on set can also cause problems. For example, Pat had arranged for a pack of lurchers to spend time with the chickens, geese, and the pony, goat and donkey that would be working alongside them on the film The Princess Bride. Unfortunately, the producer had allowed an extra to bring her own goat on to the set. The animal broke its tether as it attempted to butt one of the dogs and mayhem ensued when the lurchers set off in pursuit of the goat.

An episode of One by One required a joint appearance by a dog called Ben and an orang-utan. When Pat introduced Ben to his co-star, she managed to convince him that this unfamiliar creature was a human baby with a shock of red hair. Ben licked the animal affectionately and a great acting partnership was forged. However, bonding for the film Palace Hill proved more difficult. The script required a goat, a pony and an elephant to walk together through a gateway. Although Pat arranged her customary bonding meeting on the farm, the elephant failed to arrive because his keeper was delayed. Pat recalls: When the goat and the pony met the elephant on set, they were understandably reluctant to walk with it through the gates, so I had to coax them with a bucket of apples and corn. At the end of filming, I ended up sitting in a field with all three animals, who were happily eating out of the same bucket.

Pat often has to respond to unusual requests. When Lucinda Lambton required a flock of sheep to graze on the grass roof of a former mill for her programme about quirky architecture, Pat almost had a panic attack in a pitchblack service lift that she had to ascend along with the sheep. The writers of the wacky comedy series The League of Gentlemen often came up with bizarre requests. One episode required a lumpy dog, which Pat was able to supply because she knew someone who had a dog with udder-like benign tumours. Another episode required a pig to suckle at the breast of Tubbs, played by Steve Pemberton. Pat achieved the desired result by smearing his false breasts with a paste of dried milk.

Pat says: I always try to meet the requirements of writers and directors, but on the strict condition that my animals are not adversely affected in any way. The television and film companies know that animal welfare is a priority with me. On one occasion, I absolutely refused to co-operate when a director wanted one of my dogs to be drugged so that he could play dead. In any case, I knew the dog could play the part because he often played dead deliberately as one of his party pieces.

Pat has so much understanding of the bond that exists between animals and their owners that she gives bereavement counselling to people who have lost their pets and she even has a chapel of rest on her farm where the ashes of cremated animals are placed in tasteful urns and owners can quietly pay their last respects to pets that were, to all intents and purposes, members of their family. This aspect of Les and Pats business is known as Pets at Rest and was set up ten years ago at Less suggestion.

Pat certainly treats her own animals as close friends, For example, to relieve the boredom between takes on Spitting Image, she even went for a walk with her donkey Shakespeare through Birminghams shopping precinct, much to the surprise of one shopper who thought she was collecting for charity. At the end of our conversation, I suggested to Les and Pat that they might like to be photographed with one of their animals. Pat went to fetch a pony called Betsy and brought her to the front door by walking with her through the house. For Pat and Betsy, taking this route seemed to be a perfectly normal occurrence!

Prop Farm Ltd and Pets at Rest are based at Grange Farm, Elton, near Creswell, in North Derbyshire (01909 723100). pat (or)

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